Another notable feature is about twenty feet up the side of the front turret – a little door with a short beam protruding from the wall just above it. It was from this beam that people were hanged – pushed out of the little door while the public watched from a raised embankment across the road.
And it was to this place I was sent for three months in January 1983.
Not, I hasten to add, as an inmate but as a trainee probation officer – not that there was a great deal of difference. I was let out at lunchtimes and got to sleep in my own bed but, other than that, I was at the mercy of the prison warders like everyone else inside.
Both my course tutor and placement supervisor were particularly anxious that I kept quiet about being gay. It would be ‘in my best interests’, they said. In plain English that meant that I would encounter a lot of hostility. An openly homosexual man in a claustrophobic all-male environment was just asking for trouble. The notion that it might be inappropriate to put me in such a homophobic environment in the first place never seemed to cross their minds. In effect, it was my problem and they honestly believed they were helping me to ‘manage’ it.
I wasn’t sure where they felt the hostility would come from – the prisoners or the warders – but I was soon to find out. Ironically, it was on my way to the sex offenders wing – a place I’d always felt uncomfortable about since, technically, I was a sex offender myself, having slept with males under 21 years of age.
The sex offenders wing was a closed unit next to the remand prisoners wing. The door between the two was always locked and a prison officer was always stationed nearby to allow access as required. Inmates of the sex offender unit remained in their cells for most of the day: inmates on remand were allowed to move around their wing freely all day.
En route to the sex offender wing one day, I began to descend the stairs into the remand wing. As I did so, I became aware of a couple of remand prisoners talking loudly about ‘fairies’, ‘bum boys’ and suchlike. Taking this as general prison banter, I continued down the stairs and through the wing towards the sex offenders unit.
Somewhat strangely, there were no prison warders in sight. And the connecting door was ajar. Looking into the sex offenders unit all I saw were locked cell doors – but still no prison warders.
So I turned back around into the remand unit – to find all the remand prisoners watching me! The homophobic insults were still flying around and, even though I couldn’t see exactly where they were coming from, I was beginning to get a good idea of where they were aimed!
Feigning ignorance (something I’m remarkably good at!) I walked back through the unit and up the stairs. I kept walking – across the next landing, out of the wing (thankfully there was a prison warder on the exit door), across the prison yard and into my office.
The incident was never investigated nor, indeed, even documented. My supervisor had a quiet chat with one of the more intelligent warders who concluded that I clearly had been ‘found out’ and that the episode was a set-up. But it was seen merely as ‘one of those things’.
My course tutor blankly refused to find me another placement and advised me that my only option would be to leave the course. As far as he was concerned, this experience was ‘character-building’ – something I needed to get used to if I was going to work in the probation service.
I couldn’t afford to leave the course so continued with my placement and the harassment continued. On one occasion, after arriving at work with my jacket collar turned up, a warder asked me, loudly, “Are you a transvestite?”. At other times I was treated as if I were invisible. In practice this ranged from not having doors unlocked for me to dog handlers allowing their dogs to lurch at me before pulling them back at the last second.
At the end of my placement I was told that I had won the respect of the prison officers by staying the course. Needless to say, this was something of a hollow victory: I’d had no real choice about leaving – and their respect was meaningless since I had absolutely none for them.